Free improvisation can appear to be little more than chaos. But under the right circumstances, musicians come together for an engaging, abstract conversation that sorts out the world’s sounds into something that’s thrillingly free yet falls into a beautiful order. That’s what Arto Lindsay and friends do with Largest Afternoon, released on the Corbett vs. Dempsey imprint that, in addition to a record label, publishes books and runs a Chicago art gallery. Much as label co-founder John Corbett writes in his book A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation, the album is like watching a flock of birds fly off in formation, “wondering how they know to turn without crashing into another.” The excitement comes from all those near-collisions.
Lindsay, who emerged out of the No Wave scene in Mars, turned to semi-pop funk with Ambitious Lovers and then to a curious hybrid in his own solo song-based work, is known for his skronking guitar textures, but that’s not all he brings to the table. While he’s the first name on the marquee, he’s not necessarily the leader.
Lindsay is joined by Joe McPhee on pocket trumpet and alto and tenor sax; Ken Vandermark on tenor sax and baritone sax as well as clarinet; and Phil Sudderberg on drums. The musicians form quartet, duo and trio ensembles that despite the freedom and energy, operate with a fairly distinct structure. Which isn’t to say there aren’t surprises, and a sense of humor. What, does somebody tell jokes, you might ask? Not exactly. If you’ve ever attended a free improvisation concert, you know that sympathetic musicians sometimes reach an impasse that’s so unexpected that they laugh. What’s so funny, you might wonder? Well, in this case, it might be Lindsay’s heavily-distorted response to McPhee bubbling up a figure on pocket trumpet, or Vandermark and McPhee wailing their reeds sympathetically in opposite channels, or Sudderberg momentarily falling into a recognizable groove before dropping back into something wilder.
The music requires concentration but isn’t so inaccessible as one might think. Try it on the subway or the bus, and the squeak of an escalator or the rumble of the city passing by might inadvertently score a strange dance of downtown commuters. It’s remarkable how ordered such free music sounds when juxtaposed with the complete disorder of rush hour; there’s logic here, in Lindsay’s flurries of scuzz guitar or McPhee’s brass exclamations and enthusiastic vocalizing.
There’s a dog on the cover, and if you’ve got your own canine audience to listen with, you might find that the animal’s unpredictable gait and infectious energy, and even its penchant to take something out of the trash and just chew on it to savor its texture, is the very feral embodiment of this shaggy human din. If only you could understand what your dog is saying, what it’s thinking, you might muse. Well, you might respond to your faithful pet much like you would to Largest Afternoon: with open ears, dancing and wide-eyed look and listen to the world around you.